Tuesday, December 23, 2008
We’ve also had word of several deaths in the last week from Arbogast’s blog (the Scribe’s one stop shop for the celebrity death roll), including Majel Barrett-Roddenberry at age 76. The Sci-Fi keen amongst us will fondly remember Barrett from Star Trek; not just from her reoccurring role as Nurse Christine Chapel (and as the voice of the Enterprise’s computer for just about every subsequent manifestation of the show) but as the nearly forgotten First Officer of the Enterprise under Capt. Pike in the original pilot. We’ll also be taking advantage of a much needed holiday break to catch up on several Christmas Day releases, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Valkyrie, and prepare a best of the year list.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
In this week’s column, we mention the Bluray release of the newest Uwe Boll epic to hit disc, the superbly titled In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. For fans of the filmmaker (or those who bottleneck parkways by slowing down to gawk at traffic accidents) there will be a Uwe Boll film festival at the Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles beginning tomorrow, Dec 17th. In addition to past efforts like Bloodrayne and Alone in the Dark, the festival will premiere Boll’s Vietnam epic, Tunnelrats and his latest video game adaptation, Far Cry (a Scribe favorite that deserved a nobler fate). Both will feature a Q&A from Mr. Boll following the showings, which is guaranteed to be livelier than anything that happens onscreen.
Monday, December 8, 2008
Saturday, December 6, 2008
And then I remember this
I don’t know if it’s the utter defeat in his reading of “You’re trying to kill me” or when his voice cracks with henpecked rage at the word “coffin”, but there’s magic here. The kind of very real magic that can happen when an actor and material hit a perfect stride. And then I think of all the really, really fine performances that he’s turned in since. Not just the Jake Gittes or the R.P. McMurphys, but his note-perfect supporting turn as Eugene O’Neil in Reds or his spectacular deadpan readings in About Schmidt. I can’t imagine that he wants to cap off his career with The Bucket List anymore than I want to see it (which ain’t much) so I’ll hold out hope that he’s got one more Carnal Knowledge in him
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
A few weeks back, the public got their first taste of Lowry Digital’s restoration work on the Bond franchise, and aside from a too-widespread for comfort compatibility issue with many Blu-ray players, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. As our PS3 enjoys a sterling reputation for firmware updates, we had no problems with the first batch of six releases (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball, Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, and Die Another Day) and tremendously enjoyed the digital restoration, in spite of some issues with certain “fixes” like the removal of guide wires from a miniature helicopter in Russia. The 1080p Blu-ray transfers both invite and reward close inspection, revealing a level of detail that had been hidden under decades of poor care and inferior video mastering.
That’s the big news, but buried amidst the prerelease ballyhoo for the newest entry, Quantum of Solace, is the release of the entire Bond series – in 720p high definition – on the Xbox Live video marketplace, and we’re pleased to report that these aren’t hastily dumped up-converts; they’re all wearing their new Lowry Digital suits, and it has given us a chance to revisit our very favorite film in the series, Moonraker.
Let me assure you, dear reader, that this is no attempt at irony or a reach to be different just for its own sake. For most people, their favorite Bond films (and Bond actor for that matter) depend largely on where in a person’s life they happen to fall. Moonraker, released in 1979, was our first Bond film seen in a theater – an experience that burned both the film and its star, Roger Moore, into the mind as a perennial, albeit sentimental, favorite. At the conclusion of the previous Bond installment, 1977’s The Spy who Loved Me, the end credits announced that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only, but that same year, a little thing called Star Wars changed the business forever and even James Bond would have to find his way in this new climate. Eyes was postponed until 1981, and work quickly began shaping Ian Fleming’s 3rd Bond novel into an outer space adventure. The novel “Moonraker” was a decidedly Earth-bound tale about a former Nazi posing as a wealthy industrialist, Hugo Drax, who attempts to begin the Blitz anew by obliterating London with a nuclear missile. As with most adaptations of Fleming’s books, the producers retained the major character names, a handful of incidents, and little else for the film version. In the film, Hugo Drax was still a wealthy industrialist, but the jewel in his crown was a space shuttle manufacturing plant in California, where Drax himself resides in a rebuilt French chateau, and personally funds and trains his own suspiciously young and attractive group of astronauts. Bond is placed on his trail after the Drax-built Moonraker shuttle is hijacked in mid-air off the back of a 747, and soon uncovers a plot to exterminate all human life while Drax waits with his Noah’s Ark of perfect physical specimens on a space station orbiting secretly above the Earth.
In the 30 years since its original release, Moonraker has found itself in the ignominious position of representing ground that even the most fervent Bond apologist is willing to surrender. The earliest films (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Goldfinger) had fanciful moments, but were rooted in a very traditional (read – conventional) espionage film format. Thunderball was the first Bond on a truly epic scale; it was the first to be filmed in widescreen, the first to have a running time over 2hrs, and the first to emphasize spectacle over more mundane concerns like plot mechanics with a lengthy underwater finale that slows the 1965 film down to a deadly crawl. From that point onward, each successive film in the series was then tasked with outdoing what came before. Live and Let Die was an inauspicious debut for Roger Moore, as he was force-marched through a clumsy effort to contemporize the series with an “urban” edge, and fared little better with The Man with the Golden Gun, a cheap looking affair enlivened only by the casting of Christopher Lee as his nemesis. Not helping the cause was the producer’s decision to abandon scope photography and return to a more TV-safe aspect ratio, resulting, not surprisingly, in two films which appeared to be made for television. That all changed with the next outing, The Spy Who Loved Me, which featured much more than just a return to widescreen photography. Unlike the prior efforts, the picture plays like as though it were tailored specifically to Moore – looser and more comfortable now – allowing the actor’s estimable charm to shine through. Say what you will about Connery and Craig, only Roger Moore could retain his dignity while converting a Lotus Esprit into a submarine and flinging a fish from the driver’s seat as it rides up out of the surf. No less important was the addition of Curt Jurgens as baddie Karl Stromberg (a last minute stand-in for Blofeld, as the rights to both the character and SPECTRE itself were involved in a lawsuit) in a welcome return to the heady days of global conquest seeking super-villains. Everything about Spy seamed big, from the famous opening ski-fall stunt to Stromberg’s undersea lair, and Moore perfectly inhabited this larger than life world. Now he owned the role.
So, what’s so great about Moonraker?
Roger Moore was in top form here, sandwiched between Spy and Eyes and forming his perfect Bond trifecta. Moore was always a good actor, but suffered from the inability to stop being Roger Moore long enough to invest a character with real emotions. On this side of the Atlantic, Robert Wagner had the same difficulty, and a promising career quickly degenerated to the statue of professional raconteur. It was easy to see Moore’s growing disinterest with the role in subsequent installments, but here he keeps both hands on the reigns, keenly maintaining the humor of the piece without allowing it to degenerating into farce…
…which is exactly how most people regard the outer space aspect of the story. Words like ridiculous are typically applied to the film’s final act, in which a shuttle filled with American Marines engage Drax’s satellite security force in a pitched laser battle in outer space. It’s odd that people would wait nearly 20 years to be bothered by the lack of realism in a James Bond film. In truth, there’s little technology present in the film that isn’t already achievable today, where shuttles routinely dock with orbiting space stations (though our astronauts don’t have nearly the sense of style as Drax’s do). Audiences are cleverly eased into the notion of space travel by the stunning set designs of the great Ken Adams, who evokes a futuristic yet practical aesthetic for Drax’s shuttle assembly plant and the absolutely breathtaking underground mission control deep in the Brazilian jungle. One of those very designs made it onto the cover of Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond. Another behind-the-camera collaborator that must be singled out for praise is special effects artist Derek Meddings, who was charged with creating and photographing the picture’s amazingly detailed model work. The amazingly intricate model and effects work during the film’s final reels hasn’t dated the film in the way that other Sci-Fi extravaganzas of the era have (you, The Black Hole, stand up!), and give the space scenes an elegance and austerity that more than offset any “What’s Bond doing in space?” incredulity.
The Bond films enjoyed more than one good streak in the 70s, with turns from a group of terrific actors taking their Bond baddie bows; there’s Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga (a perfect example of a great villain in a pants movie) and his henchman Nick Nack (the inimitable Herve Villechaize), Curt Jurgens turn as the aforementioned Stromberg, but Moonraker offered the best of all, Hugo Drax. The bilingual Michael Lonsdale was born to a French mother and a British father, and moves freely between English and French language productions. At the time of Moonraker’s release, he was probably best known for his role as the lead detective on the trail of assassin Edward Fox in The Day of the Jackal, and his services as a character actor are still in high demand today (watch him steal Munich right out from under every other actor onscreen – including future Bond Daniel Craig). His deadpan delivery of lines like “Take care of Mr. Bond – see that some harm comes to him” strike the perfect balance between sinister and camp, and only Donald Pleasence before him seemed to have as much pure fun going up against Bond. Appearing alongside Drax is Jaws, a monstrous henchman with steel teeth (Richard Keil) brought back from an uncertain death at the end of Spy after proving popular with audiences, particularly children (a fact that this reviewer can personally attest). Another sticking point with this film seems to be the overly comic handling of the character – most likely done because of his popularity with kids – as opposed to his decidedly deadlier turn in Spy. You can practically hear a muted-horn “wah-waaaaa” whenever he emerges from a pile of rubble, or rips off the steering apparatus on the vehicle that he’s in. If this really bothers you, then the final character revelation on board Drax’s space station will leave you in a fit of apoplexy.
From the moment the Union Jack popped out of Bond’s parachute pack in the opening of Spy, the bar for the pre-credit gag has been set immeasurably high – and Moonraker doesn’t disappoint. Following the thrilling (again, thanks to Derek Meddings’ model work) mid-air shuttle theft, we’re treated to Bond being pushed out of a plane in midair by Jaws, and having to propel himself toward the pilot and his parachute. After wrestling it off the pilot’s back, Bond is attacked by Jaws, moving towards him in freefall with arms outstretched like a bird of prey. It’s a crackerjack opening; a genuine adrenalin rush with the feeling of real danger that’s capped by a terrific theme by Shirley Bassey. Bassey returned to perform a Bond theme song for the third and final time after Diamonds are Forever and Goldfinger with Moonraker’s eponymous title tune. It’s a return to the dreamy pop stylings of the 60s era pictures that tends to get lost among the more FM-friendly themes by Carly Simon (“Nobody Does it Better”) or Paul McCartney (“Live and Let Die”). There may be catchier themes, but Bassey’s vocals represent the class and elegance of the era in which the series began like no others.
Having just seen Quantum of Solace, we’re happy to report a different experience than the majority of the UK critics that thought the picture was all over the shop. We had no problem following the plot, though we couldn’t help but wonder why the super secret criminal organization couldn’t have been called SPECTRE? Surely that lawsuit must have been settled by now? Our only misgivings with the picture is the heavy leanings of the action scenes against the Jason Bourne franchise. As Quantum is designed like a 107min chase scene, it’s a shame that much of the chase feels like it belongs in another movie. it also feels somewhat rushed, and its scant running time (Quantum is the shortest Bond in history) feels much longer than Casino Royale – even though it runs almost a half hour less! it’s impossible to imagine the producers returning to the heady days of 70s excess with Daniel Craig; he’s too grounded, too real. In the short term, this was necessary to make the nearly half-century old character vital again, but in the long run we worry that much of what makes Bond special is being diluted.
Monday, November 10, 2008
Ennio turns 80 today, and I think we all ought to take some time today to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have him around. If you’ve the means today, try writing Arch Stanton on the bottom of a stone and start backing up, or shuffle your way gleefully over the cobblestone streets just under the Brooklyn Bridge, or slip on a fetching pair of black gloves and thumb through the pictures of your soon-to-be victim – your memory will do the rest.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
So, a year later, what struck me differently?
The acting, with a notable exception, is unusually good. Scout Taylor-Compton is especially fine as Laurie, giving her both strength and a sense of humor. While no sane person would take anything away from Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance in the original, the purity aspect of the character was pressed hard, making it difficult to believe that girls like Linda and Annie would want to hang around with her. Scout (along with her director) manage the difficult feat of creating a genuine teenage character that resists stereotyping. This is particularly true of her scenes with on-screen mom, Dee Wallace. Their scenes together are very real and sweet and make you realize the work that Zombie is capable of when he drops the aggravating white trash pastiche. Pictures like House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects were choc-a-block with so much of this ugliness that you weren’t able to even see the bottom, with each character seemingly trying to outdo the previous gutter-filthy exchange. In his first two films this was passable (though not really enjoyable) because Zombie built the films around that sort of behavior, where constant threats of “skull fucking” and “titty twisting” formed the fabric of the character’s lives. But Halloween seems to want to exist in something more closely resembling the real world – a welcome direction for this clearly talented filmmaker – but this has the effect of rendering scenes like the breakfast introduction to the Myers family into an ugly joke (William Forsyth deserves better than this, Rob). Zombie is an intelligent director, and I don’t know if he’s using this as a crutch to appeal to his imagined fanbase or if this is the way he thinks most people interact with each other – either way, I hope he thinks better of it, and soon.
Back when House of 1000 Corpses first came out, the performer that I expected the least from was the director’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. The mention of her name conjures the image of an aging hippie selling hash brownies at a Phish concert, and her shrill performance as a member of the murderous clan left only the impression of nepotism at work. But her role in The Devil’s Rejects was more fleshed out, and resulted in the actress holding he own against scene stealer Sid Haig, but it was still essentially the same role as before. In Halloween she manages some real pathos as a mother who comes home to find her family butchered and her blonde, cherubic-faced son holding the bloody knife. But she’s even better after Michael is put away under the care of Dr. Loomis (McDowell, wearing an utterly preposterous wig) as she watches her son slowly slip away. Her final scene at the hospital as she reacts to the monster her son has become is heartbreaking.
Strangely, it’s top-billed Malcolm McDowell that drops the ball with a phoned-in performance. Maybe he’s just done so much garbage in the last few decades that nothing really excites him anymore, but I suspect that many of the young filmmakers who seek him out for roles are too much in awe of him to actually give direction, and are willing to accept almost anything from their idol. I’m still a fan, but I’d dearly love to see a director really ride McDowell and whip the eyebrow arching and naughty-boy posturing out of him and get the kind of performance he’s capable of (either that, or just watch Time After Time with him and say “Please, just give me that!”) Also damaging the film are the myriad cameos by the Zombie stock company, with barely a minute going by without your eyes darting around to spot Bill Moseley or Sid Haig doing their usual walk through. Individually, certain choices (like Brad Dourif and Richard Lynch) are actually quite good, but when you jam them in scenes with Udo Keir, Clint Howard, and Micky Dolenz, it becomes a Chiller convention autograph floor instead of a movie.
Though I’m still hard-pressed to recommend it, Rob Zombie’s Halloween does provide a glance at a talented director going through some growing pains. There’s an assured, stylish hand with plenty of style at work here, and we as soon as he finds material that forces him to look forward instead of back, we’ll see what he’s really capable of.
Monday, October 20, 2008
May people dismissed Rudy as just another filthy “ethnic” comic, but watch the way he manages to both flaunt and tweak blaxploitation stereotypes in pictures like Disco Godfather and Petey Wheatstraw, laughing at and with the narrow range of roles that black actors were stuck with in the 70s. There aren’t enough oversized clocks and gold-plated teeth in the world to put guys like Flavor Flav or Luke Campbell in the same solar system as Rudy.
Peace, brother. The Man can’t touch you now.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Released in 1979 and directed by Stuart (Cool Hand Luke) Rosenberg, Amityville was a big money maker for American International Pictures, and turned author Jay Anson’s purportedly true account of a possible haunting in a sleepy Long Island, NY town into a national sensation. The facts: On the night of November 13th, 1974, in the town of Amityville, Ronald “Butch” DeFeo fatally shoots parents, Ron Sr., and Louise, and his four siblings, Dawn, Allison, Mark, and John in their home at 112 Ocean Ave. Immediately taken into custody by the police, Ron first claimed that the crime was a mob hit from which he narrowly escaped, but by the next day he had confessed to all six murders. The expected insanity plea, citing voices in his head that prodded him to murder his family, failed, and Ron DeFeo Jr. sits in prison today. 13 months later, George and Kathy Lutz and their children Danny, Christopher and Missy moved into the house for the bargain price of $80,000. 28 days later, the Lutz family left the house in the middle of the night, never to return. They would later claim that they had spent those weeks under siege by all manner of paranormal experiences, ranging from cold spots and foul odors, to levitation and green slime. They sold the rights to their story and provided dozens of hours of audio tapes to author Jay Anson, who crafted the novel, "The Amityville Horror". The rest, however, is conjecture. George Lutz’s story had changed over the subsequent years, citing Jay Anson’s artistic license as the origins of some the more fanciful episodes, and this, combined with the lack of any tangible evidence (and the fact that no family that has lived in the house since has reported any supernatural occurrences of any kind) has cast a shadow of doubt longer than the South Shore itself.
Overlong at 2 hours and peppered with the odd bit of flat-footed dramatics (Rod Steiger chews the scenery, sends it back to the chef, then eats it again) the picture wire-walks over self-parody; the first time we see Brolin carefully sharpening an axe with his Manson lamps set to high-beam, it’s legitimately frightening, but by the 5th time even the most forgiving genre audience will be rolling their collective eyes. And yet we still find ourselves riveted to the story, and re-visiting the film in light of the recent home-loan crisis that has seemingly paralyzed the world economy may show why. After a prolog showing the DeFeo murders (the family is often referenced throughout the story, but never named) followed by the ubiquitous “one year later…” title, we meet George and Kathy Lutz as they tour the house as prospective buyers. Even at the bottom-rung price of $80K, the mortgage will be more than a stretch, but the prospect of the American dream of home ownership overrides fears both supernatural and financial.
George is a brand new husband and father (all three children are Kathy’s from a previous marriage) and most of the nefarious goings on could be construed as George’s anxieties manifesting themselves in the real world. In fact, the first really supernatural events begin to happen just after Kathy announces that she’s the first in her family to actually own a home and her Aunt is coming by for a visit. George angrily protests that they aren’t ready to “pass inspection”, and sure enough once Kathy’s Aunt Helena arrives, she’s immediately assaulted by a wave of nausea and is forced to flee the house. Was it ghosts, or the unkind vibes of a frustrated husband? The strongest manifestation of George’s middle-aged woe occurs towards the end of the film, when he sees his young and attractive wife ravaged by age. Hell, he nearly takes her head off with the axe that he’s been incessantly sharpening for the entire film before he’s snapped out of his murderous haze. Earlier, George’s business partner, Jeff (Slaughterhouse 5’s Michael Sacks) expressed serious misgivings about how quickly George changed his entire life for “some broad” and implies that George only married a pretty face and didn’t consider the consequences. And what worse punishment could there be for a man who married for beauty than to see his young wife whither before his eyes?
Lots of credit has to go to Brolin for a balls-out performance. Needing to appear in a highly agitated state for most of the running time must have made for an exhausting shoot and Brolin acquits himself quite well, cutting a believable path from family man to near-murderer in 28 days. When the house begins to “possess” him, George feels a constant chill and is unable to sleep – always waking up at 3:15, the exact time of the previous murders. He ignores his business and splits his time between feeding the fire in the living room and the ongoing care and maintenance of various chopping tools. Brolin really looks like he’s living through Hell and director Rosenberg doesn’t flinch in his depiction of the Lutz family’s decent into it. Margot Kidder lends fine support as Kathy, a tough role that requires her to convincingly stay with a husband who is turning into a homicidal maniac before her eyes. It’s a shame that this would be one of only a handful of high-profile roles for the actress after her turn in Superman. And keep an eye out for Murray Hamilton (telling Steiger essentially the same thing he told Roy Scheider in Jaws), Dirty Harry’s John Larch, and TV tough-guy Don Stroud as priests, a young Amy Wright (memorable as William Hurt’s hysterically eccentric sister in The Accidental Tourist) as a very unlucky babysitter, and The Believers’ Helen Shaver as the wife of Lutz’s business partner.
Unlike most horror films that simply suggest discomfort, this film possesses a palpable quality of impending dread. There’s no comedy relief to take comfort in (aside from one or two of Rod Steiger’s more animated outbursts) while we spend the better part of 2 hours watching the violent dissolution of what should have been the picture perfect American family. And while the black tar in the toilet and the blood-painted room in the basement are memorable moments, it’s the more everyday horror of misplacing a $1500 wad of cash intended for his brother-in-law’s wedding that audiences can readily identify with that keeps them coming back. Even autumn itself, typically photographed in loving, golden brown hues, appears onscreen like a harbinger of death.
MGM/UA home video, operating under the reigns of parent company Fox, have given the film a wonderful transfer – apparently the same one used in recent MonstersHD airings – full of rich detail and without the excessive digital noise reduction that has plagued many recent catalog titles. The extras are non-existent save for the theatrical trailer, which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the ridiculously high list price. A word in the corporate ear: With even the most generous online discounts, most people will be unable to get the $39.95 price tag below $30 – a nonsensical policy for any single disc release without extras. Very, very bad form.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I was probably part of the last generation to grow up with this type of show, a delicate local commodity that couldn’t withstand the twin onslaught of both cable television and home video. I wish they’d done something like this sooner, but I can’t complain about the timing.
Many thanks to DVD
Saturday, October 11, 2008
The Omen Collection! At standard definition DVD prices, I may not have thought to complain, but considering that Fox is charging $130 list for this Bluray item, I feel embiggend to bitch.
All looks well enough from the outside, but from the moment you pick up this 4-disc set the near total lack of weight is disconcerting. After opening and pulling out the inner sleeve, we’re treated not to the usual reinforced cardboard superstructure with a clear plastic lining to protect the back of the discs, but to a magazine-insert thin, quad-folded sheet with nothing but a wafer thin plastic nub to hold the disc in place. Those unfortunate enough to have purchased Universal’s HD-DVD set of Battlestar Galactica will remember these well, and may not take some solace that they no longer own the most irresponsibly packaged high-def disc set.
And if you order online, consider yourself lucky if the set arrives undamaged, as this array of newspaper thin paperboard is no match for traditional USPS or UPS handling techniques. And before owners of Fox’s previous DVD Omen set worry about double-dipping, know that the unwanted, unloved, made for TV sequel, Omen IV has been exorcized from the set. In its place we have the equally beloved Omen remake (which Fox seems to want us to call The Omen 666) from 2006, with Liev Schreiber trying to keep a straight face long enough to cash his check, and memorable only for giving Giovanni Lombardo Radice (AKA John Morghen from Cannibal Apocalypse and City of the Living Dead) a featured role.
In all seriousness, what counts are the quality of the transfers, and once we’ll speak to that once we’ve had the chance to examine them more closely. At first glance, the original Omen seems to have a few new extras including a new commentary track, but the two sequels seem to be HD upgrades of the previous DVD editions. Good for Fox for dipping into its back catalog for some Halloween HD treats, but crummy packaging at an outrageously inflated price pleases no one but Conal Cochran.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
The adult film world lost one of its most original voices on September 27 when director Ron Sullivan (who worked under the pseudonym Henri Pachard) passed away after a long battle with cancer. His name will mean nothing to those unfamiliar with the XXX film world, but anyone with even a passing interest will likely hold Sullivan in high esteem. His 300+ long resume as a director shows the adult industry full range of extremes, from the soul-killing, fetish fragmented output of more recent years, to some of the most critically acclaimed, shot-on-film productions of the late 70s and early 80s.
Though Sullivan began his directorial career in the late 60s by generating product for the NYC grindhouse palaces of the ‘deuce, but it was the release of Babylon Pink in 1979 that really launched his career. Released at the height of the “porno chic” era, Babylon Pink consisted of vignettes centered on the fantasies of the female characters; the concept itself wasn’t new, but the stories never felt as though they were born in the brain of a cigar-gnawing capo kicking back in his chair, trying to think of what gets broads hot. While no one would accuse Sullivan of being a feminist, the women in his films (particularly his earlier ones) were allowed to express the limits of their sexuality without judgment, whether this meant dominating their partner, or being dominated themselves. Sullivan was one of a handful of adult industry filmmakers who could showcase the submissive side of feminine sexuality without making you want to call the police.
Sullivan was also one of the few directors working in the 80s and 90s whose films you could actually laugh with instead of at. The Devil in Miss Jones part II (1982) turned out to be the classic that people assume the first film to be – until they actually see it – a handsomely produced, smart, and at times, laugh out loud picture. The scenes in Hell where Jack Wrangler as Lucifer and Robert Bolla (a professional actor whose sideline in porn became a career) as his advocate are genuinely hysterical, as they watch the spirit of Justine Jones move through the bodies of various women on Earth, including a high class prostitute (Jacqueline Lorians, looking better than ever), an Army recruit (Joanna Storm), and even a nun (Samantha Fox). The film, like most of his early work, is also beautifully photographed (it was likely made with legit Hollywood talent moonlighting on the crew) showcasing the heights that the industry could reach when time and budget allowed. It’s also important to mention that the casts of these ‘golden age’ films featured performers with professional training and stage experience; in the second half of his career, Sullivan would be denied these levels of money and talent and titles like Obey me, Bitch began to appear more frequently. But part of what made Sullivan special was the care and energy that went into even the cheapest shot-on-video feature. He loved seeing how far he could push the boundaries of acceptability, and probably no other director has used a toilet as the centerpiece of a sex scene more often and with more humor.
Ron Sullivan was a giant in an industry that isn’t known for cultivating talent behind the camera, and he will be sorely missed. The Adult Video News website has a much more in depth write-up here, and I’ll include a ‘top of the head’ list of some of his more memorable titles below.
American Garter (1993)
Hothouse Rose 1 & 2 (1991)
The Nicole Stanton Story 1 & 2 (1988)
Babylon Pink 2 (1987)
The Brat (1986)
Great Sexpectations (1984)
Maid in Manhattan (1984)
Outlaw Ladies (1982)
The Budding of Brie (1980)
October Silk (1980)
Babylon Pink (1979)
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Saturday, September 27, 2008
"They spent their own dough to get here, and they came here to see us! All right, let's show 'em what we got, guys! Get out there on the ice and let 'em know you're there. Get that fuckin' stick in their side. Let 'em know you're there! Get that lumber in his teeth. Let 'em know you're there!"
Thursday, September 25, 2008
I had always considered it a creature of pure symbolism –technique rather than human drama (chalk & cheese they may be, but I still prefer the Southern-fried prison gang scenes in The Longest Yard any day). And though the Christ symbolism is still a bit over-baked (even the famous magazine shot that Luke sends back to the prison gets ripped in the shape of a crucifix) and the use of busy-work earth moving amongst prisoners had been better exploited by Sidney Lumet a few years earlier in The Hill, director Stuart Rosenberg’s remarkable first feature has aged pretty damn well. It’s kind of incredible that he had never made a feature film prior to this; successfully jumping from the 1.33x1 ratio of television (where he had worked for most of the decade) to the 2.40 Panavision frame is no easy feat, particularly when you’ve got an enormous supporting cast that is present in the frame for most of the running time and almost never seeming “posed”. And what a cast – the film is a veritable watering hole for talented young actors, many fresh from the Actor’s Studio and getting their first real exposure. George Kennedy has a ball as the boisterous lug Dragline and won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble, but look closely for Wayne Rodgers, Luke Askew, JD Cannon, Clifton James, Anthony Zerbe, Harry Dean Stanton, Ralph Waite, and even Dennis Hopper in what must have been a humiliatingly small role (but one that he was lucky to get considering the wreckage of burned bridges that lay behind him in Hollywood at the time).
It also nicely continues the Warner Bros prison film tradition that stretches back to the early 1930s, when a bullpen of talent that included Bogart, Cagney, and Muni helped the studio muscle their way to the top of the “social consciousness” picture heap. In the early 30s the studio cagely exploited a depression-era mistrust of authority, particularly in the form of law enforcement or politicians. Many average citizens cheered the exploits of Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger because they robbed banks – a perfect symbol of a system that many believed had betrayed the average working man – and casting a charismatic actor like James Cagney as near psychopath Tom Powers in White Heat (‘31) allowed Warner to have their cake (who doesn’t like watching Cagney roughing people up?) and eat it, too (with a chilling ‘crime doesn’t pay’ ending). Newman’s Luke is no psycho – it’s rather unlikely that he would have been sent up for hard labor as punishment for the crime we see him committing in the film’s opening moments – but he has roots that stretch back to Paul Muni’s James Allen from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (‘32) only with 60’s existential individualism usurping 30’s social outrage. The enforcement of the Hayes code in 1935 meant the end of the anti-hero in Hollywood for many years, but Cool Hand Luke helped Warner Bros to get back in touch with its roots.
Another nice surprise in re-watching Luke was catching the emotional punch that had eluded me on earlier viewings. I always took Luke for a cipher; a walking metaphor for the death of the individual without much of a backstory. But, in one of the film’s key scenes, Luke's mother, Arletta (the great Jo Van Fleet) comes to visit; the ensuing scene is an absolute beauty, giving us a perfect picture of Luke’s restless life through a few minutes of casual conversation. She remains prone in a truck bed throughout their meeting, and it’s clear that she’s come to see her troubled child one last time. With so many famous lines (Strother Martin’s delivery of the classic “…failure to communicate” line made him one of the most popular characters in Hollywood) and scenes (50 eggs, car wash, road tarring, et al) this quiet moment can too easily slip under people’s radar, but it shows what a fine screen actor Paul Newman could be when he wasn’t tempted by any of his more overripe ‘smile & wink’ gestures; an affliction that nearly derails an otherwise fine picture like Harper (’66) several times. But watch Newman in the scene immediately after hearing of Arletta’s death in a telegram; he picks up the banjo that she had given him during her visit and walks over to a bunk and begins to sing “Plastic Jesus” to himself. It may be Newman’s finest moment on film, showcasing a subtlety too seldom found in the first half of his career.
Conrad Hall’s beautiful, high-contrast cinematography and Rosenberg’s assured composition were nearly a hopeless cause when viewed in cropped form on television or VHS, but the new Blu-Ray disc finally gives people the chance to see the fine detail that had been lost even in its previous standard-def DVD incarnation. Unlike several older catalog titles being overhauled for high-def disc, Luke hasn’t been victimized by over use of digital noise reduction – a process applied by studios to hammer out film grain (much of which was present from the moment light was first exposed to the celluloid) and give older films an image more recognizable to audiences raised on Michael Bay. When applied with restraint, as with Columbia’s The Professionals, the results are stunning, with vibrant colors and rich detail within each frame. When too much is applied, as with Fox’s Patton, the results are digital-clean, but human figures take on a waxy appearance, resulting in a cruely ironic loss of fine detail. Thankfully, Luke resides in the former camp, with a nicely warm, film-like appearance that reflects the look intended by Rosenberg and Hall. A better evocation of the warm summer sun on 35mm film is difficult to find. Also included are a reasonably informative commentary track by Newman biographer Eric Lax, a 30min documentary featuring many of the supporting cast (including Kennedy, Antonio, James, and Zerbe) which finally addresses how Lalo Schifrin's music for the road tarring sequence wound up as the Eyewitness News theme, and the original theatrical trailer.
Friday, September 5, 2008
Sunday, August 24, 2008
Featuring a pair of the best taglines in exploitation history, “You Don’t Have to go to Texas for a Chainsaw Massacre” and my personal favorite, “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is!”, Pieces quickly became infamous for its copious bloodletting and plentiful nudity – two items that the very film that it chose to rip-off had almost none of. After The Texas Chain Saw Massacre bowed in 1974, it became an overnight watermark for nearly all subsequent low-budget horror productions. Out massacring the Massacre became a decades-long game of one-upmanship in terms of gore, while none we able to recreate the palpable air of fear of Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece. Eventually they stopped trying.
Made with European money by a Spanish crew, Pieces dispensed with any semblance of serious minded horror in the attempt to stuff as much blood and boobs into 90min as humanly possible. It was the second to last film for star Christopher George (the actor died of a heart attack in 1983) and came at the end of an admirable string of grindhouse classics, including Lucio Fulci’s The Gates of Hell and William Girdler’s Grizzly, which used George’s square-jawed countenance to excellent effect. But the film’s most memorable performance comes from Paul L. Smith. The larger than life Smith (imagine Sydney Greenstreet with the face of Peter Lorre) was a very active genre player in the 70s and 80s, appearing as a heavy in projects as diverse as Robert Altman’s Popeye – you’ll never guess who he played! – and Alan Parker’s Midnight Express. In Pieces, Smith plays one of cinema’s most obvious red herrings; a school handyman if memory serves, who lurks around crime scenes smiling like a mental patient while lovingly caressing his chain saw.
A new interview with Smith is just one of the delights waiting inside Grindhouse’s 2 disc set, so I’ve decided to hold off on revisiting the picture until it streets in October.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Ketchum, an excellent writer with a fiercely original voice, hasn’t had terribly good luck with the film adaptations of his work. Red, despite a lead performance from the great Brian Cox, was beset by production difficulties resulting in the removal of director Lucky McKee, and there was probably no way for the adaptation of Ketchum’s greatest work, the shattering The Girl Next Door, to be anything more than a pale reflection of the source material and still be palatable enough for general release.
While watching the two year slide of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series from boisterous mediocrity to numbing unwatchability, we couldn’t help but think how perfect either Off Season or Offspring would have been to adapt to both an hour-long format (both are slim volumes and can be read in a single, white knuckle sitting). But Don's set visit makes us hopeful that we'll have a crakerjack feature to look forward to.
If you’re wondering why Offspring is being filmed first, you’ll have to check out the article, here.
n.b. - There are some pretty graphic makeup EFX pics that are probably not work-safe unless you have a private office or work at Fangoria.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Though Hayes will be irrevocably tied to a specific genre, he only appeared in two Blacksploitation films (both released in 1974), Tough Guys, an Italian-produced actioner that featured Hayes as an ex-cop set to bring down a Chicago mobster played with Fred Williamson, and the more polished Truck Turner, featuring Hayes and Yaphet Kotto as dueling hitmen. But Hayes’ appearance in features became strangely infrequent; in spite of a fabulous turn as the Duke in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (“Yoooo’re the Duuuke”) and an hilarious image spoofing in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka – sometimes known by its alternate title, Keenen Ivory Wayans’ I’ll Never Make You Laugh Again – his film career seemed to mysteriously stall out There was always lots of television work, including several guest shots on The Rockford Files, and a recurring role on South Park, which Hayes probably never thought would end up as the most controversial of his career.
Hayes’ (a newly minted Scientologist) departure from the show came on the heels of the 2005 episode, Trapped in the Closet, featuring the animated adventures of Lord Xenu & Friends. Hayes, proving that a lack of humor is a common bond among all religious zealots, quit the show in a huff, and for the first time in his professional life, Isaac Hayes was decidedly uncool.
The above image is from the yet to be released Soul Brother and came from Hayes’ official website (which had not yet posted anything about his passing. It is, considering recent events, both eerie and amazingly sad.